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Mainstream, VOL LI No 52, December 14, 2013 | Focus on Challenge of Religious Fanaticism to Democracy in Bangladesh

Shahbag Movement: Contesting Religious Fundamentalism and Charting a New Beginning?

Thursday 19 December 2013

by Anindita Ghoshal

Since the partition of 1947, the tradition of emergence of the ‘nationalism-borne state system’, rather, the concept of the independence movement, ushered in different geographical territories of South Asia. Hence, it altered the society, culture, religion, economy, nature of politics, indeed the issues of development, by a shift from the colonial framework to a self-directed or a self-governing state-system. Bangladesh was born through the process of a civil war ‘within a state’ in 1971, which strove first in the cause of linguistic identity, along with challenging the hegemonic culture in Pakistan, to make a homogeneous society within a so-called ‘nation-building process’.1 The driving force behind the making of a ‘bonding over identity’, was designed in Pakistan by the imposition of ‘complete Islamisation’ at the Centre, to make Pakistan a unitary state with both its Western and Eastern wings. Only after twentythree years of diverse experiences under ‘another’ nature of colonialism (after the deportation of the British), and other relevant issues of mal-adjustments (like West Pakistan’s economic exploitation of East Pakistan and its political superiority on decision and policy-making), made one more cluster of ‘nationalism- blended state-formation’ possible, chiefly inspired by the ‘Bengali identity issues’, which finally led to the second division of the former Indian subcontinent.

The Awami League, broadly Centre-Left and secularist in persuasion, though not always in practice, was founded in Dhaka in 1949 by the Bengali nationalists and was heavily engaged in the 1971 Liberation War. Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was the chief architect behind the creation of a ‘land of the Bengalis’ that is, Bangladesh, in the map of South Asia, which was fundamentally based on the facet of Bengali nationalism, blended strongly through linguistic emotions. The disapproval from the ground level against the imposition of an ‘alien’ state language Urdu ignited the first official protest (the Language Movement of 1952), against the coercive policies of West Pakistan, along with other major discriminations exercised against the Bengalis in the upper echelons of the bureau-cracy and military.2

After Sheikh Mujib’s assassination in 1975, General Ziaur Rahman (who himself was again assassinated in 1981), a decorated sector commander of the Liberation War of Bangladesh, continued with severe Martial Law rule, and had formed a new political alliance in 1978, then a Right-wing party popularly known as the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), to augment Islamisation. Since 2000, the BNP has been in a formal coalition with Islamist parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh and Islami Oikyo Jote. In the politics of present-day Bangla-desh, there are leading representations from these two well-known families, Sheikh Hasina Wajed, daughter of the ‘Father of the Nation’ Sheikh Mujib, and Khaleda Zia, the widow of the late General Ziaur Rahman, who are carrying their own legacies forward.

Apart from the influences and activities of some religious political parties, Bangladesh has been experiencing reigns by these two powerful ladies, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia, as Prime-Ministers alternatively since 1992. In their respective terms, when religion was used by the Islamic fundamentalist groups or some leading Right-wing parties, the concepts of development, education, employment, and especially women’s empowerment, often got affected. Thus, the issues of conflicts in a rather changing society often changed their nature in every decade and posed several challenges. At the same time, the primary concern was how to contest religious fundamentalism at the grass-root level. Besides, there is a need to see how the Islamic parties are now presenting Islam and how they are using it in their daily lives.

As per the popular point of view, religious fundamentalists are trying to shift the focus from the problem of poverty, lack of good governance, transparency of the administration, and overall material development of the country, by investing heavily in religion-based social welfare works. The Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh, one of the major parties of this type, tried hard to build their position in the masses, to portray a fair image of themselves, and to play a definite role in the political and economic activities. The philosophy guiding their work is the same as in Pakistan, and what they do involve the running of welfare organisations, like a promi-nent hospital in Dhaka called Ibn-e-Sina, establishment of the Islamic Bank Foundation or the Sylhet Women’s Medical College to promote education, health and medical care facilities, and to engage in emergency relief activities.3 For the Jamaat, the inspiration for choosing specific welfare activities comes partly from the needs of the community, and also the desire to be an integral part of other social and economic developmental programmes as ‘it is placed very much in Islam’. In the modern world-system though, the religious political parties like the Jamaat-e-Islami have often been branded as ‘bankrupt’ in political philosophy.

With such a background, the Shahbag Movement was apparently an outcome from a specific class of educated/technology-savvy youth and a part of the intelligentsia who are essentially trying to shape a new beginning by protesting initially against the existing judiciary or constitutional system in Bangladesh for a common goal. After four decades, Bangladesh has finally attempted to officially expose the brutalities of 1971 and has begun the trials of the war criminals. There was great public support for the trials against humanity and great hope was centred on those trials. The trials were limited to local collaborators of the Pakistan Army only, and focused on the war crimes alone, not on the other political crimes in which many sides, local and foreign, were complicit. After achieving independence, a devastated Bangla-desh, especially Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, eagerly hoped that the war criminals would be punished. In December 1971, India had in its custody over 92,000 Pakistani prisoners of war. Initially the Bangladesh Government wanted to try some 1100 of them. But on India’s pursuance (as per international law, a tragedy of such proportions conferred responsibility on India and Pakistan to investigate and mete out punishment for the war crimes), Mujib’s Government narrowed down the list and in the end presented charges only against 195 Army officials. That trial did not materialise, as India was keen to move on and Pakistan, under President Bhutto, bargained over two issues. One, repatriation of the Bengalis stranded in Pakistan, and two, Bangladesh’s international relations with China, the US and Arab League, plus the UN membership. After the assassi-nation of Mujib and most of his family members in August 1975, General Ziaur Rahman, who took control of state power, revoked a constitu-tional ban on the use of religion for political purposes and permitted the Jamaat-e-Islami, a party led by the war collaborators, to re-enter the politics of Bangladesh. For them, Jamaat provided an avenue to foster closer ties with West Asia, an important source of economic and political support. Within a few years, most of the high-profile war criminals became powerful in a country, whose very emergence they had opposed earlier. The Pakistani Army’s war crimes were thus compounded by the political crimes of the Bangladeshis themselves.

In 2010, the Bangladesh Government estab-lished an International Crime Tribunal (ICT) to try the perpetrates of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971. In the 40 years that have elapsed since the war, the demands of the Bangladeshi people for justice have remained captive to a political battle for power and continual revisions of history which have allowed the key perpetrators of such crimes to evade punishment. Though the task was not an easy one, as according to the International Crime Tribunal Act (1973), the tribunal has the ‘power to try and punish any individual or group of individuals, or any members of any armed, defense or auxiliary forces, irrespective of his nationality, who commits and has committed, in the territory of Bangladesh’ naturally involved huge war-related crimes. (Act No. XIX of 1973)

So, in practice the trials were largely focused on alleged war crimes of the Bangladeshis, that happened in the then East Pakistan. Ten alleged war criminals, including eight leading members of the Jamaat-e-Islami political party and two from the BNP, were arrested and are now facing trials. The main four chief accused are key Jamaat leader Motiur Rahman Nijami, Abdul Qader Mollah, Muhammad Kamruzzaman and Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujahid. Though, some of them have been sentenced to life imprisonment or death, there remains a substantial lack of confidence about the rule of law in Bangladesh and it is believed that as soon as the Awami League is voted out of power, due to the behind-the-scenes political compromise between the BNP and Jamaat, all the accused would get out of jail.

Subsequently, following a clarion call from the Bloggers and Online Activists Network (BOAN), hundreds of demonstrators assembled in Shahbag on February 5, 2013, right next to the Dhaka University campus, one of the centre-stages of the ideological and political battles of 1971. But soon the Shahbag protest turned out to be a demonstration where thousands joined and such protests subsequently spread out to other parts of the country as well. They demanded capital punishment for these war criminals and a ban on the Jamaat.

Unlike other public demonstrations in Bangla-desh, the Shahbag protests appeared to be state-sanctioned with the visible support of the law enforcement authorities. There were actually two concerns in this movement: (1) Shahbag’s call for death sentences for the war criminals, the razakars on trial, who had sided with the Pakistan Army to kill, torture and rape at genocidal magnitude; and (2) the ICT’s fallibilities and incompliance. Abolition of capital punishment is the cry of the world, while Shahbag was demanding nothing less than the highest punishment that the law of the land provides, which in Bangladesh’s case, however, happens to be the death penalty. Also, the recommendations of the ICT are nowadays alleged to be subject to the state’s considerations and are being debated for such issues like human rights.

There were some impediments in development issues as well. With intense political rivalry and fight over social and economic issues, Hasina’s relations with the US have been uneasy over Washington’s efforts to get Nobel Laureate Muhammad Yunus reinstated as the Grameen Bank chief. It further soured over the World Bank’s temporary suspension of its pledged funding of the huge bridge over the Padma river, the country’s biggest infrastructure project so far. Perhaps Awami League saw a US hand behind the World Bank’s move; the request to the Bank has now been withdrawn and it has been said that the incumbent government in office will conduct the project with its own resources. Sheikh Hasina might even explore alternative funding from ‘other sources’. At the same time, her opponent, BNP, insisted on restoring the caretaker government provision in the Bangladesh Constitution, that would provide for a neutral interim administration to take charge before the next elections to parliament in order to conduct the polls.

Not only that, the Opposition leader, Begum Khaleda Zia, wrote a column in the Washington Times and requested that the US should ‘do something more than it has done to save democracy in Bangladesh’, and blamed Hasina ‘for taking the country towards one-party and one-family rule’. The Awami League and its allies strongly protested on the issue that Khaleda had asked for ‘foreign intervention’. These claims and counter-claims affected the Shahbag activists also and they started to include different developmental issues of Bangladesh in their campaigns, like they became vocal about corruption at all levels, low wages of workers, especially women workers in the garment indus-tries, demanded liberalism in policy-making issues, and tried to be vocal to put more stress on education, health and other developmental concerns. The conflict that emerged from Shahbag remains basically between secular Bengali nationa-lism and Islamist radicalism—a battle between two bi-polar opposing rival ideologies in contem-porary Bangladesh.


1. Ahmed Kamal, State Against the Nation: The Decline of the Muslim League in Pre-Independence Bangladesh, 1947-54, The University Press Ltd., Dhaka, 2009, p. 11.

2. G.W. Choudhury, ‘Bangladesh: Why It Happened’, International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs), Vol. 48, No. 2, (April 1972), p. 244.

3. Masooda Bano, ‘Welfare Work and Politics of Jama’at-i-Islami in Pakistan and Bangladesh’, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. XLVII, No. 1, January 7, 2012, p. 91.

The author is an Assistant Professor in History, Rishi Bankim Chandra College, Naihati (West Bengal). She has worked extensively in Bangladesh, especially with academic affiliation from the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh, Dhaka, and can be contacted at

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